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How Fijian dictator Bainimarama finally earned his mandate

The Conversation - 20 hours 52 min ago
Represent: Frank Bainimarama at the United Nations. EPA/Mary Altaffer

Close your eyes and think of Fiji, and you’ll probably picture a luxurious South Pacific idyll set against a backdrop of honeymoon couples frolicking on white beaches and azure seas, being served by smiling natives. But over the past 30 years, Fiji has struggled to come to terms with post-colonial multi-ethnic complexity; the result has been military-led coups in 1987, 2000 and 2006.

And yet, in the country’s first elections in eight years, the people of Fiji have chosen coup-maker Voreque Bainimarama, who has ruled the country since seizing power in 2006, to take the helm of a democratic government.

To grasp the full complexity of this result and take stock of its implications, we have to grapple with the complexities of Bainimarama himself.

In again, out again

Here is a military leader who first tasted power during the putsch of 2000, nullifying the forces trying to overthrow the government of the day while assuming executive authority himself, then suspending the constitution and removing the existing government from power.

He was reported as agreeing that political power should remain in indigenous Fijian hands – and so Indo-Fijian prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry, a descendant of indentured Indian labourers, was ousted.

Yet in the 2000s, Bainimarama’s role was reversed; he staged a prolonged and public confrontation with the same government he had originally placed in power, and which had gone on to win the public mandate. He appeared to come out in favour of a multi-ethnic peace settlement, one that didn’t prioritise the interests of the indigenous Fijians over those of their Indo-Fijian brothers and sisters.

The 2006 coup was therefore unprecedented in Fiji’s modern history for not being an “ethnic” coup; instead, it laid bare the intra-Fijian struggles for power that have always been a dynamic part of indigenous life, but which were long muted under British colonial rule.

From strongman to steady hand

Between 2006 and the 2014 election, Bainimarama’s public profile has grown ever more complicated. Among other things, he is accused of human rights violations and of muzzling the media; when the judiciary ruled his leadership illegitimate, he resorted to ruling via decree.

And yet, under the aegis of military dictatorship, Bainimarama has done something remarkable: earned a democratic mandate.

Some of the reasons this has happened are obvious. There’s no ignoring the part infrastructure-building has played in securing Bainimarama’s success: roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, water, electricity are now not scarce or poor-quality commodities, but a part of people’s everyday lives. Targeted improvements to these basic services has done much to earn the former military dictator people’s trust.

But above all, he has done much to dismantle the deeply institutionalised ethnic divisions that have structured Fijian society and politics – as well as the imagination of its people – since the colonial era.

We’re all Fijians now

Every citizen of Fiji is now Fijian. Unlike previous elections, the 2014 ballot did not restrict people’s votes to political candidates within their own ethnic group. Fijians responded by giving Bainimarama a mandate to continue in power, this time with the full cachet of a democratically elected leader.

This does not mean that the democratic election of Bainimarama on a platform of equality and meritocracy – the same platform he used to frame his 2006 takeover as “the coup to end all coups” – has laid all the ghosts of Fiji’s ethnic past to rest. That would be impossible; ethnicity has been the main fault line of identity in the country for too long. Even as many Fijians have shielded their Indo-Fijian brothers and sisters from ethnic violence during the country’s various coups, these same Fijians have felt a sense of pride in ruling their own nation.

Fiji’s future is far from certain, and it would be ridiculous to imagine or expect otherwise: here is a country in only its fifth decade of independence, still repairing a deeply complicated multi-ethnic social fabric it inherited from its colonial rulers.

But while Fiji is certainly struggling to find a way forward and decide how or whether to accommodate a range of cultural rights, indigenous rights and human rights, the world beyond is hardly any closer to reaching consensus or peace on these issues.

This election has empowered the people of Fiji to rally behind a leader who can take them forwards. Like Bainimarama himself, Fiji’s future will be complicated and difficult – but there is real cause for optimism.

Jas Kaur does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Universities may seek more EU students once controls lifted

The Conversation - 21 hours 31 min ago
More to come? Univeristy of Essex., CC BY

Plans to remove controls on the number of students in England from autumn 2015 could see more universities turning to recruit students from the European Union, according to a new think-tank report.

Nick Hillman, who was special advisor to the former universities minister David Willetts and is now director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the decision to abolish the cap on undergraduate student numbers – announced by George Osborne in December 2013 – was rushed through and the detail of the policy remains “fuzzy”.

Competition for EU students?

Hillman said the removal of the cap on student number controls could incentivise universities to recruit more students from the EU, who had previously fallen within the cap.

But this could prove a difficult sell. There was a 24.6% drop in EU-domiciled university entrants at English universities between 2010-11 and 2012-13, the year the new £9,000-year student fee regime was introduced.

Yet a recent report by membership body Universities UK said a number of vice-chancellors were looking to the EU as a potential growth opportunity. There was a 12% rise in the number of applicants from the EU placed at the most selective institutions in 2014-15, according to university admissions body UCAS.

Outside net migration target

EU students studying in England are eligible for student loans. But they have £690m of outstanding debts with the Student Loan Company, which Hillman says “have proved notoriously difficult to collect”.

He also identified a disconnect between the opening up of student number controls and the government’s policy on including students in the net migration target, which has been widely criticised by the higher education sector.

“If official policy is to encourage EU students to come and study in the UK, it is yet another argument against the inclusion of students in any future migration targets,” said Hillman.

Not all looking to increase

Yet Julius Weinberg, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, said that some universities may not want to expand their overall student numbers, even with the cap removed.

“Some [universities] may think that over-expansion will lead to diminishing quality,” he said. “At Kingston, we’re deliberately not expanding, and if anything we’ve actually shrunk over the last year or two as a deliberate policy to try and ensure that we only admit students who will benefit.

“We had some areas of the university with quite high attrition rates. I want to concentrate on making sure that those students that we admit, we can ensure their success and that they exit the university into good jobs.” Weinberg added that: “It is of no benefit to students to admit them to university if they’re inadequately prepared, so that they drop out and go back to their communities and say that university is not for us.”

180,000 more students

From 2012-13, higher education providers were permitted to admit as many students with A Level grades of ABB or above, with each university then allocated a number of students they could admit with lower grades. They were fined if they admitted significantly more or less than their allocation. In 2013-14, there were 242,859 places spread out between England’s higher education and further education colleges.

This would change under the removal of the cap in autumn 2015. The new policy could see up to 60,000 places available every year at English universities – which spread over three years would mean an extra 180,000 students, says Hillman.

In preparation for the change, there was provision for an extra 30,000 extra places for 2014-15. At the Universities UK conference on September 9 the new universities minister, Greg Clarke, said that 15,000 new students had been recruited for 2014-15, which he said was “bang in line with expectation”.

Funding question mark

But Hillman said the funding for the new policy had not been properly finalised, particularly as one of the original revenue streams set aside to fund the policy – the sale of the student loan book – was ruled out by business secretary Vince Cable in July.

“While the Coalition has said the extra places will be fully funded, precedent suggests future politicians may not regard this as a binding commitment,“ he said. "It currently seems unlikely that the higher education budget will enjoy the same level of protection awarded to some other areas of public spending.”

Steven Jones, senior lecturer at the Manchester Institute of Education at the University of Manchester, said that although the benefits of having a better educated population are well documented: “the higher education sectors don’t play by normal market rules and the risk is that further liberalisation will hinder more than it helps.”

“Removing number controls forces individual universities to compete even harder against one another for students. But quantity and quality don’t always go hand in hand, and an increasing concern is that alternative degree providers are putting the sector’s hard won international reputation at risk,” Jones said.

Next read: Why we must challenge notion that there are too many students

Hard Evidence: #indyref – why the bookies expect No to win

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 23:46
Have the bookies got it right? Vol'turdu, CC BY-SA

The only question worth asking right now is, who’s going to win? Bookmakers' odds should be fairly representative of movements in sentiment around the debate, so they can be a great guide to what is happening during the referendum campaign. What follows is my analysis of what the bookmakers think will be the outcome of the independence referendum, updating and deepening the piece I wrote for The Conversation a couple of weeks ago. I’ve used data from 23 bookmakers published between April 1 and September 17.

Even in the day before the vote, there is a great deal of change with the average decimal odds for a Yes vote at about 10/3 (4.3 in decimal odds), which had drifted out from less than 3/1 (or 3.9) the day before. There’s a bit of movement that isn’t quite consistent. Fourteen of the bookmakers have odds which are lengthening for a No vote, while six show odds reducing. But the typical No vote is 2/9 (1.2), so at this point there is still a fairly wide gap in the odds.

Betting on a Yes vote, May 1 to September 17 Bill Buchanan

The past 30 days have seen most of the action (see figure below), which will come as no surprise. The key turn-around in the odds for the No vote happened after August 22, several days before the second TV debate that did so much for the Yes campaign. At that point the odds for Yes were in some cases further out than 5/1. Their subsequent move inwards as everything suggested Yes had the momentum hit a plateau in the period between September 7 and 10 beneath 2/1 (2.78). Then they rose back to almost 7/2, spent four days coming back in, and then moved out again in the past day – perhaps reflecting the small lead in the polls for a No vote. The odds for a No vote are now approximately where they were in early May.

The odds for a Yes vote over the past 30 days Bill Buchanan

Percentage share of the vote and turnout

But what do the bookies think the actual outcome will be, beyond backing No as the winner? If you analyse the figures, they reflect the closeness of the vote. The betting on Yes ending up with between 45% and 50% of the vote is almost evens. The chances of a lower Yes vote are greater than those of a higher Yes vote, though, according to the bookmakers. You can get about 5/2 (3.5 in decimal odds) on Yes finishing at 40% to 45%, but over 4/1 (5.1) on a 50% to 55% Yes. All the same, the chances of this kind of narrow Yes win are still higher than a heavy defeat in No’s favour. The odds of Yes finishing at 40% or lower are nudging 6/1 (6.8).

The final Yes vote (September 17 odds) Bill Buchanan

Another interesting question, which will probably affect what happens to the outcome, is turnout. As many as 97% of people have registered to vote and the received wisdom is that turnout could be 80%+.

The bookmakers think it will be higher still. The possibilities break down as follows:

Over 85%: 8/5

80%–85%: 2/1

75%–80%: 5/2

70%–75%: 9/2

65%–70%: 16/1

Geographical trends

In terms of voting for the place that is most likely to have the strongest Yes vote, Dundee has been out in front for many months, with current odds of them having the largest Yes vote at two to one (1.5). Of the areas which are the strongest Yes backers, it is difficult to generalise. But the Highland areas and the west of Scotland tend in that direction strongest, while the south, east and northern isles are least keen on independence. Overall the major population areas on the east coast of Scotland, apart from Dundee, are generally in the bottom half of the geographical split.

Bill Buchanan

As useful as all this analysis is in tracking sentiment, it must be said there is a strange dynamic going on in the betting market. The polls are saying it is close, but the bookmakers are not reflecting that. It is a reminder that, just like with the opinion polls, bookmaker odds are only best guesses on what will happen – and are swayed by customer demand. It has been a vote in which most of the printed media outlets have backed the No campaign, but in these days of social media, they are not necessarily the main outlets for information or the best reflections of what has been happening.

To end on a disappointing note, Betfair has already started to pay out on a No vote, as they reckon it is 78% certain. In fact, that’s the odds of not pulling out the ace of spades from among four ace cards. I may do maths and not politics, but I do understand that 78% is nowhere near certain. Will they end up looking stupid after the announcement? We won’t have to wait long to find out.

Bill Buchanan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Youth Masterclass - 2nd Australian International Chopin Piano Competition

Events & seminars - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 23:46
CONCERT Youth Masterclass - 2nd Australian International Chopin Piano Competition
Thursday, 18 September 2014 at 4:00 PM - 6:00 PM
Larry Sitsky Recital Room, ANU School of Music
Part of the 2nd Australian International Chopin Competition hosted by the ANU School of Music, the Youth Masterclass provides an opporunity for gifted young pianists not able to compete in the competition to be guided by members of the expert jury. more»

Gordon Brown’s intervention in No campaign marked a political resurrection

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 23:18
Look who's back... Stefan Rousseau/PA

In the last three weeks of the Scottish referendum campaign, Gordon Brown had already emerged as the galvanising force on the No side. This reached new heights on Wednesday in Glasgow when he made what has been described as the speech of the campaign.

“This is not their flag, their country, their culture, their streets,” he told his community-centre audience. “This is everyone’s flag, everyone’s country, everyone’s culture and everyone’s streets.

“Let us tell the people of Scotland that we who vote No love Scotland and love our Scotland.”

Brown’s big speech address

Having been bypassed in the earlier part of the campaign when efforts were being channelled mainly through the cross-party Better Together organisation, Brown became the central figure on the No side, injecting passion, energy and fresh arguments into a campaign that, before his interventions, was seen to lack all three.

Heartland Labour voters switching to Yes and the consequent surge in support caused panic on the No side at the beginning of September. This was the catalyst for Brown’s greater involvement. After that, he was the most effective speaker in challenging the SNP and rallying Labour support for a No vote, especially in the final days.

The Brown book

Early in the summer the former prime minister produced a very personal book: “My Scotland, Our Britain,” which argued that sharing and solidarity within the UK offered a preferable future for Scotland than independence. His analysis of the shortcomings of the No campaign was particularly penetrating. It put up the hackles not just of Better Together leader and former chancellor Alistair Darling, with whom personal relations had previously broken down, but also with many fellow MPs who supported running a negative campaign.

Brown argued that instead of communicating messages to voters such as: “Britain says no to Scots participation in the pound” and: “Britain says no to further defence work” and: “Britain says Scots will go bankrupt”, it would be better to highlight the fact that pensions, the welfare state and the national health service depend on the UK-wide system of pooling and sharing of resources that would, in his view, be the first casualty of Scotland’s departure from Britain. Above all, Brown argued that Labour had to speak the language of patriotism, to join the fight to define Scottishness rather than allow the nationalists to turn the campaign into a choice between Britain and Scotland.

The federalist convert

During most of the campaign, there was a marked reluctance in the leadership of the No campaign to discuss proposals for constitutional change. The only proposals on the table when Brown’s book appeared were for further fiscal devolution, which many in the Westminster parties supported on the basis that having to raise tax revenues would force Alex Salmond to face up to spending constraints and take responsibility for decisions.

Instead Brown advocated a 10-point plan to strengthen the powers of the Scottish parliament and provide additional safeguards to Scots. Having resisted the notion of federalism throughout his political career, he is now advocating moving towards it despite the challenges that poses in a multi-national state where one political entity, England, makes up 85% of the whole.

Brown played a hugely significant role in saving the union. His was the strongest and arguably the most intellectually engaged voice on the No side of the argument. He was the driving force behind the agreement by the three main Westminster parties in the closing weeks of the campaign to a timetable for more devolution.

He was also behind the further commitment to retain the Barnett formula and protect the Scottish health service. At a time of crisis, Brown offered a way forward in a context where he had no formal role – he was neither leader of his party, nor leader of the campaign. The extent to which his ideas have been adopted across the political spectrum at Westminster and the effect his involvement has had are remarkable – a true political resurrection.

The only poll that matters

Brown will rightly be given much of the credit for turning round a campaign that looked like it might come off the rails.

Neither are the implications of Brown’s intervention confined to Scotland. What he persuaded fellow politicians to accept as the price of saving the union could change the dynamics of constitutional arrangements at Westminster too. How that manifests itself – and the implications of moving significantly further down a federalist route – remain to be debated.

Both Scottish politics and UK politics will have to adapt to the outcome of a referendum that much of the establishment north of the border and all of it south of the border had imagined was never in doubt.

And a politician who many thought had ended his career and disappeared off the political stage suddenly occupied the centre of it, hinting along the way that he might stand for the Scottish parliament. He may yet have transformed the backdrop against which future political battles will be fought.

Des served as a Labour MSP and cabinet minister for a number of years, before leaving Holyrood in 2011.

It's Better Together for David Cameron's future – but the same goes for Ed Miliband

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 22:27
You know we made a vow not to leave one another never. Lynne Cameron/PA Wire

On Monday, prime minister David Cameron delivered a big speech in Aberdeen on the Scottish independence referendum. It was a masterly performance.

He spoke of the shared histories of Scotland and England, of the achievements of both countries united for 300 years. He highlighted extra powers to be devolved to the Scottish parliament – agreed with the leaders of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats – should Scots reject independence at the ballot box.

Cameron spoke plainly and with conviction. He sounded like he believed in what he was saying. Listening to it live, I even wondered if it might go down in history as a landmark, a turning point for the Better Together campaign which, over the last fortnight, has been haemorrhaging support and looking like it was in a state of free-fall.

Perhaps Cameron, drawing on what he imagines to be the moral authority of his office as prime minister, hoped his speech would save the Union.

Backbench grumbles

Within minutes of finishing his speech, however, right-wing Tory backbenchers such as John Redwood and Bernard Jenkin – the latter a long-time critic of the prime minister – were on the phone to journalists, vowing to block further powers and financing to the Scottish parliament unless a new settlement could be reached with England.

The Barnett formula, which the Treasury has used since the 1970s to allocate additional funding to Scotland, has been singled out for specific criticism. Many MPs representing constituencies south of the border think it is unfair and argue that it insulates Scottish public services from cuts to public spending that those resident elsewhere in the UK have no choice but to wear.

It must have made for a long and lonely journey back to London for Cameron and his staff. Any good they might have expected to come of his speech on the eve of the poll has now been comprehensively undone by several of his party’s own MPs.

All of this has helped stoke one of the strongest arguments for the Yes campaign, which has been quick to point out that the pledge by the leaders of the pro-Union political parties may not have the backing of their parliamentarians at Westminster.

For example, Scotland’s deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, argued that voting No carries little guarantee of constitutional change. This is important, as beefing up powers for the Scottish parliament – a commitment to so-called “Devo Max” which the prime minister refused as a third option that could have been put on the ballot paper – has broad support across the Scottish electorate, among voters on both sides of the independence argument.

According to Sturgeon, the agreement between Cameron, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and Labour’s Ed Miliband is a promise they can’t claim to be able to keep. They are treating Scottish voters “with contempt”, she said.

Perfect storm for PM

Cameron’s problems are compounded further by speculation about his future should Yes win. Sources close to the powerful 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs have said Tory backbenchers are being canvassed about whether he should resign if Better Together loses.

With the London mayor Boris Johnson planning to return to parliament as a Tory MP next year, the prime minister’s critics can now imagine their party being headed by a popular new leader in the not-too-distant future. It is difficult to envisage how Cameron could continue as prime minister after agreeing, two years ago, to a referendum that resulted in the break-up of the very country he was elected to lead.

Politically, Cameron is now caught in a perfect storm. Hoping that the No campaign will prevail despite its strategic blunders and self-inflicted wounds may not be enough to save his premiership. A narrow margin could be no more than a Pyrrhic victory.

Labour’s lead in the polls is growing ahead of a UK general election, now less than a year away. Under pressure from Nigel Farage, Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2017. At the time, he bargained that this would satisfy Eurosceptic voters that his party risks losing to UKIP. Badly bruised from campaigning, as he might put it, against the break-up of Britain, will Cameron have the appetite to come back and fight another divisive referendum campaign after this week’s vote?

Labour pains

The debate over Scottish independence offers him one consolation, though. The Labour Party views Scotland as its territory. With a bigger political stake in the result of Thursday’s referendum than any other Unionist party, its leaders are desperate for Scots to reject independence. But tens of thousands of their own supporters have broken with Labour – that most tribal of political parties – for the first time, saying they would vote Yes. This could destroy Labour’s electoral base north of the border.

Labour needed this like a hole in the head. That’s why the Labour Party have committed significant capital and resources to slugging it out with the nationalists, whose reach now extends deep into their rank and file.

This is also why, if a victory for the Yes campaign renders Cameron’s future as prime minister untenable, it should rightly also raise questions about Miliband’s leadership too.

Alex Smith receives funding from the Leverhulme Trust and has also been funded by the British Academy, British Council, ESRC and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. He is Senior Leverhulme Research Fellow and Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas and an Honorary Lecturer in the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham.

The fight against Islamic State is a battle for young minds

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 21:01
A suspected IS convert is arrested in Indonesia. EPA/Sakhiy Rifano

Governments around the world are trying to come to terms with the fact that their nationals – and young people in particular – are leaving to join extremist groups such as Islamic State.

In response, ministers are threatening to remove their citizenship. Britain is planning to join military action in the areas controlled by IS but the battle against radicalisation is not one that can be won by military force or heavy-handed sanctions. In fact, that might make things worse.

The battleground against radicalisation is waged in the mind. It is here that persuasive arguments and passionate discussion appeal to the hero inside us to rise up and do something, be someone or make history.

Radicalisation begins like a seed and grows. It thrives best in the dark, best in isolation and best in soil that has been well manured. Foreign policy often provides a fertile bed of manure in which the seeds of radicalisation can grow. That’s not because foreign policy is manure but because it is easy to make it look as if it is. Negatively slanted, twisted and inaccurate accounts of any policy are difficult to challenge without lengthy investigation.

What is the UK’s foreign policy on Syria, for example? Those seeking to radicalise others will be able to summarise it in a single sentence. That sentence is likely to be accepted because it is difficult to find a simple counter argument. The more negative the policy is perceived to be, the less human the government or even British people are perceived to be.

This is important because radicalisation thrives when we start to see our enemy as less human than ourselves.

Us and them

The process of radicalisation involves getting us to focus on the negative experiences we have had and the negative experiences of those we love or should love. It asks us to provide an explanation for those things and when we can’t, it offers us one. These things happen to us because some enemy wants them to, chooses them to and allows them to. We then isolate ourselves from this enemy, focusing on the difference between us and them and emphasise the wrongs that they do.

And this in turn starts a process of dehumanisation in our minds. The apparently British IS fighter known as Jihadi John, for example, refers to David Cameron as a “lapdog” in the video showing the killing of hostage David Haines. He lays the blame for each of the killings squarely with British and American foreign policy.

Religion can also provide a simplistic, absolute framework behind which to hide from discussion, debate and accountability. It provides a foundation for difference. “Us” becomes people of the same religion and the “enemy” becomes anyone outside that group. The enemy is qualitatively different, not as human and maybe not even human at all – just a dog. This, for some, provides permission to use harm against others.

Years of peace talks in Northern Ireland have shown how important it is to undo narratives of difference to make progress. The sight of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sharing a joke like regular people in 2007 has, in the wake of the former’s death, been cited as a symbol of change in the country. The more human we can make the enemy, the less we will feel separated from them. Only when we stop seeing the opposition as completely different to us, can we start to be reconciled with them.

Rational arguments are one way to contradict the line peddled by radicals. The UK’s policy on Syria has many dimensions. The British public is deeply committed to humanitarian and charitable support, as was made clear when £3.4m was donated to the cause in just 48 hours in March 2013. The government, on behalf of the taxpayer, donated £11.4bn in aid the same year, with £600m set aside for the Syrian crisis alone. These kinds of figures provide useful ammunition in the battle of the mind. The apparent enemy becomes less hostile and more human.

But reason alone will not win the battle for the mind. Some young people see no opportunity to get involved and make a difference other than by joining the jihad. It’s positive that young people are passionate about inequality, just not that they see violence as the only way to address it.

Perhaps this is where opportunity lies for the UK government. Shouting about the positive work it does internationally, offering young people the chance to make a positive contribution and acting transparently are all ways to counteract the messages being sent to young people by those who wish to indoctrinate them. An alternative needs to be offered on the other side, such as providing opportunities for young people to debate and engage in politics beyond casting a vote.

Military force is not the solution to this problem. At a recent sermon in my local church, we were told: “If, in order to defeat the beast, we become the beast; then the beast has won”. It’s not easy to rid people of firmly held prejudices but a consistent and reasonable argument is a better way to start than threats about removing passports or prison sentences.

Nicola Bowes does not work for, consult with own shares in or receive funding from any organisation or individual who might benefit from this article and anticipates no conflicts of interest with submitting this perspective for The Conversation.

Ethics, group psychology and Meteora – a tour group dilemma.

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 19:33

Everyday life is full of mini-ethical moments. Do you own up to being under charged? Do you push in when the traffic is heavy and you’re running late? Do you hassle your kid’s teacher to get little Jimmie or Jane an advantage?

Most of us do our best, but various emotions, motives, and practicalities act to push us to our limits. Sometimes our limits are breached – mine were on a recent tour in Greece.

I was in Athens and I had a few days spare, so on the spur of the moment decided on a tour to Meteora. Meteora is one of those travel hidden gems. You’ve probably seen it in a James Bond movie or Game of Thrones – but not quite realised it’s a real place. It’s those mysterious rocky outcrops in Central Greece with all sorts of amazing monasteries built on the peaks and half way up impossibly steep cliff faces. Metoera Panos Photographia/Flickr

They date back centuries. The history is rich, incorporating geology, wars, art, Christianity, 500-year-old Plato texts and more.

Anyway, to save too much laborious research, I took the advice of my hotel concierge and jumped on a two-day tour. About 7 hours of bus travel, with a stop at Delphi to see some ruins, an overnight stay in a cheap hotel, then a morning at Meteora.

Le tour de Greece

Our tour guide, Yanni, was over-talkative and slightly anxious but keen to please. Yanni repeated himself often. He appeared as unsure of himself as his various historical facts. It’s fair to say he was a reluctant leader.

The tour group consisted of about 30 people, various ages, various cultures, about 6 different language groups, but all getting by in English.

On the morning of the Meteora visit as we prepared to board the bus, Yanni announced that there were various monasteries we could visit – but given our time limits we had to choose two. He suggested the Grand Monastery (the oldest and biggest) and the Saint Stephen Monastery (I was particularly pleased to hear of this Saint).

At this point, the oldest of our group, an 82 year old French woman called Cecile asked about the number of steps as her mobility was limited. It turned out Saint Stephen had only a few, but the Grand Monastery had 400 and they were steep. Yanni immediately offered an alternative – the Holy Trinity monastery that had only 140 easy steps, and whilst beautiful from the outside, was closed so we couldn’t go inside.

Yanni declared: “This is Greece, it’s a democracy, the group can decide”

The dilemma

Faces dropped everywhere. Yanni had dumped us in it. Cecile immediately cried out “If we choose the Grand Monastery I can’t go.” She was rather forceful. She was authoritative.

We all sensed the Grand Monastery was probably the best. We had all paid a couple of hundred dollars and invested LOTS of bus travel time.

We all stared at each other. Perplexed. How could we negotiate this ethical dilemma? We’d been together all the previous day, and the night, and eaten two meals together. Group psychology existed. We’d all chatted to Cecile at some point.

A middle-aged woman bravely said: “We have come a long way, and the Grand Monastery is the main attraction.” Her husband said: “But we are getting to see inside Saint Stephen – and they are all pretty similar – it would be good to stick together as a group.”

More perplexed staring. I had previously chatted to Cecile on the bus. I liked her. Heiko Kunath/Flickr

Oh what fun a tour group can be! The pushing and shoving to get to the best photo spot. The stilted meal conversations. The unfamiliar sharing of intimate circumstances (one member had gastro so we needed extra petrol station stops). The various personalities – the extrovert, the know-all, the young lovers constantly embracing, the super-friendly – it’s a microcosm of society.

Anyway, back to the ethical dilemma – how do we solve this? Yanni was as quiet as a monastery mouse. The group continued to stare, hoping for an easy resolution. Would Cecile fall on her sword and remove her objection? No!

What would you have done?

One woman offered – “I really came to see the Grand Monastery” This was followed by a chorus of statements along the lines of “I’m told it’s magnificent.” Cecile stared them down. The impasse built.

A non-negotiated solution

Finally, a gentleman on the outskirts of the group skilfully feigned ignorance of the debate and said: “Sorry. I missed the start of this discussion. What are we debating? Clearly we have to go the Grand Monastery – we all came for it. Why would be go elsewhere, it doesn’t make sense. Why are we questioning it?” Yanni meekly replied – “Cecile can’t walk that far,” The gentleman declared: “Well, you’re the guide Yanni, you decide”

There was no further comment. We all looked to Yanni. He decided, “I guess we have to go the Grand Monastery.” The group was clearly relieved. Cecile accepted her defeat with a curiously graceful grunt.

We avoided a decision through the gentleman feigning ignorance and forcing Yanni to decide what we all wanted. All but one. Democracy won, but did we do the right thing?

Lessons learned?

I think two things conspired to deprive Cecile.

First, the moment passed too quickly to adequately think about values and ethics. In the heat of the moment personal gain trumped ethical considerations. This is a common outcome – we often consider our ethics after the event. In retrospect I think we made the wrong decision.

Cecile had paid, and had a right to two monastery visits. No one warned her of the steps. We were a group and could/should have stuck together. In the over-all scheme of things, each monastery is worth a visit and it doesn’t really matter which two you choose.

It’s easy to justify one’s own actions in retrospect; it’s even easier to be critical of others. Hypocrisy is blurry in the mirror.

The second was group psychology. It takes time to function as a cohesive group, and the bigger the group the longer the time lag until cohesion develops. For 30 people, a day wasn’t quite enough – so we were thinking as individuals, not as a group.

If we were a smaller group or had been together longer, I think we would have made a different decision. We would all have felt a bond to Cecile, we would have been more likely to see the situation from her perspective, and more likely to sacrifice our own needs.

A lesson in group psychology and practical ethics were two of the few free additions to the tour.

As it turned out I enjoyed the morning so much that I jumped off the tour before it headed back to Athens and stayed an extra day to visit more of the monasteries and throw in a hike too. I said ‘au revoir’ to Cecile.

Meteora really is a magical place. If you go to Greece, take the tour. History, ethics and democracy – it’s a three for the price of one deal!

Steve Ellen does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Islamic finance goes global, but Malaysia still leads the way

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 19:32
Jostling for top spot. Andy Rain/EPA

Islamic finance is going global. South Africa has joined the UK and Hong Kong to become the third non-Muslim country to issue an Islamic bond or sukuk. And this follows American investment bank Goldman Sachs raising US$500m from its first Islamic bond sale. These moves reflect the desire to effectively tap into the wealth of Muslim investors around the world.

Fuelled by booming industries in the Middle East and South-East Asia, the Islamic finance industry is booming. Forecasts estimate it will double over the next five years to more than US$3.4 trillion. The two global centres for it are currently Malaysia and the UAE (where Goldman is issuing its sukuk). But London too has staked its claim on standing alongside Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.

Playing host to the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum last year, London appeared to make a deliberate challenge to rival the traditional Islamic financial powers. Opening the forum, David Cameron said:

London is already the biggest centre for Islamic finance outside the Islamic world … I want London to stand alongside Dubai and Kuala Lumpur as one of the greatest capitals of Islamic finance anywhere in the world.

London followed this up by launching a £200m sukuk in June 2014 and a groundbreaking new Islamic index on the London Stock Exchange. But can the non-Muslim power really challenge the traditional centres and how do they compare?

Malaysia’s market share

In terms of market share, Malaysia leads the pack with 16 fully-fledged Islamic banks including five foreign ones. Its total Islamic bank assets total US$135 billion (£82.7 billion), which accounts for 21% of the country’s total banking assets. By comparison the UAE has seven fully-fledged Islamic banks accounting for US$95 billion of assets and this represents around 19% of its total banking sector. Meanwhile, the UK has just six Shariah-compliant financial institutions, with total assets of US$19 billion.

If we focus on Islamic capital market development, Malaysia is once again a long way ahead of its competitors. The country boasts more than 60% of the global sukuk market amounting to US$164 billion worth of outstanding sukuk in the first half of 2014. London on the other hand has US$38 billion of outstanding sukuk raised through 53 issues on the London Stock Exchange since 2009. Dubai fares the worst with just US$21.08 billion as of May 2014 in sukuk on its exchanges. In fact state-owned companies in the UAE have gone to London to seek further capital.

But Goldman Sachs' debut sukuk was, of all the favourite Islamic finance locations, listed on the Luxembourg Stock Exchange. Intent on avoiding the controversy of their failed 2011 sukuk, Goldman this time adjusted the sukuk structure and enlisted several heavyweight Gulf banks including Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s Emirates NBD Capital and the investment banking arm of Saudi Arabia’s National Commercial Bank to arrange the sale.

This is only the second such deal from a conventional bank outside a predominantly Muslim country and so a significant step in Islamic finance going mainstream. It will also act as a big boost for GCC investment banks and give one more thumbs up for Dubai as the centre for Islamic finance.

Malaysia is also way ahead when it comes to regulating Islamic finance. Malaysia passed an authoritative Islamic Financial Services Act in 2013, which built on its earlier Islamic Banking Act of 1983 to oversee operations within the country. Dubai, London and other would-be centres meanwhile both rely on their common banking law with some Islamic finance add-ons to govern Islamic finance operations.

Islamic finance future

In relation to the Islamic finance education infrastructure, the UK is actually ahead of the game. The UK has been ranked as the global leader in Islamic finance education with more than 60 institutions offering Islamic finance courses and 22 universities offering degree programs specialising in Islamic finance.

Malaysia and the UAE followed. Malaysia has 50 course providers and 18 universities offering degree programs, while the UAE has 31 course providers and nine universities offering degree programs. But when it comes to research output in Islamic finance, Malaysia stood first with more than 100 peer-reviewed research papers released in the past three years. The UK followed with 56 peer-reviewed research papers and there was no data available for the UAE.

Under threat

Based on the above observations, it is apparent that Malaysia is still the superpower of Islamic finance. But with the recent developments in the rival centres this position is going to be under continuous threat.

The Islamic Development Bank has set up a US$10 billion sukuk issuance program on the Nasdaq Dubai exchange that will be a big boost to Dubai’s efforts to become a top centre for Islamic finance. And London, which is already a global financial centre, is making its moves to bolster Islamic finance from education to cultivating relationships with Muslim banks and investors.

Malaysia, however, still has the advantage of a vibrant market in sukuk issuance, thanks to the Islamic hinterland of southeast Asia and a good reputation for strong Islamic finance regulation. So, it’s not a surprise that other international banks are going there to do business. And we can expect this to continue for the foreseeable future. But how Malaysia reacts to its competitors and can maintain its position is another matter.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

'Cli-fi': literary genre rises to prominence in the shadow of climate change

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 18:50
Could novels help us fight climate change? Asian Development Bank/flickr

A frail risk analyst rediscovers his inner frontiersman in a devastating flood that hits Manhattan; an insightful rural woman glimpses the grace of god in the revelations of biological science; genetically engineered hominids who purr themselves to wellness inherit a devastated Earth.

All of these plots belong to the genre of “cli-fi”. Which is to say that climate fiction is anything but predictable – which makes sense, given the unprecedented changes it attempts to address.

Cli-fi is the latest literary genre – and it’s growing so fast in popularity that there have been several university courses established this year which study it. But what exactly is Cli-Fi and who is writing it?

Climate fiction has been described as a close cousin of science fiction, as they both engage with controversial political problems, making use of fiction’s ability to conjure possible worlds. Sci-fi grew to maturity in the shadow of the hydrogen bomb and like climate fiction, it faced an unknown, catastrophic future.

But the topic of climate change demands more scientific subtlety and moral nuance than the problems presented by technologies intended to destroy the world. Now the gas-fuelled car, rather than the bomb, is the centre of impending disaster.

The science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin has noted the relationship of sci-fi to realism, in that both genres are based in an empirical understanding of how we know the world. Realism, like sci-fi, is based on a common belief that science shows us what is real. This is also the case with climate fiction. Some say cli-fi is a new literary genre that will help us prepare, psychologically, for global climate change. It is a new form of literature which truly faces the unknown.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior offers a prime example of this symbiosis between science and storytelling. By the end of the novel the central character, Dellarobia Turnbow, recognises herself as a principle actor in the worldwide crisis of our Sixth Extinction through the particular instance of the collapse of the North American monarch butterfly. She is guided by the novel’s anti-hero, Ovid Byron, who enters her rural community of climate change deniers to record the butterfly’s disappearance. Dellarobia measures her community’s evangelical preference for the immaterial and otherworldly against an increasingly persuasive scientific, realist point of view.

The monarch butterfly is threatened by global warming, but could be saved by fiction Chris Short/flickr

Kingsolver’s novel suggests that literature is necessary to make the scientific facts of climate change believable to the general public. Ovid Byron, a scientist named after two great writers, functions as a powerful storyteller. And where science typically plays the role of a superior and “real” form of knowledge, cli-fi suggests that science only becomes knowledge through storytelling and image-making.

But for other authors, fiction, like climate change, shows up human failings.

For example, in Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, the protagonist Mitchell Zukor works as a risk analyst. His job is much like that of a cli-fi writer: he creates scenarios and characters to enliven the almost unthinkable ecological crises that pose insurance risks for his company’s clients. His practice is based on mathematical calculation, but his sales pitch employs storytelling. But by the end of the novel, the limits of such a function are made clear. Zukor ends up alone in a devastated wetland where his ability to plant a garden proves more important than his ability to sketch possible futures.

Referendum on humanity

Ian McEwan’s Solar, the first serious novel about climate change by a recognised author, also betrays the modern novel as inadequate to the task of conceiving change at the scale of climate. McEwan’s anti-hero, physicist Michael Beard, uses climate change for his own gain in his attempts to capitalise on a dead colleague’s innovation in solar technology.

Through Beard, a scientist and salesman-storyteller, McEwan implies that knowledge and creativity are bound up with the basest of human desires, namely greed. As McEwan makes the reader think about planetary ecology through the mind of a flawed character, we begin to wonder if the novel itself, with its traditional focus on human psychology, is not demonstrating part of the problem. Even in our most imaginative ventures, we are too self-centered to make a sustainable world.

Similarly, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy satirises the excesses of human nature and its expression in late capitalism by depicting a post-apocalyptic earth suited only to genetically modified humanoids. Atwood’s Crakers, who can subsist on their own dung, are the ulimate no-impact men. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl also offers a savvy fable of the externalities of global capitalism and greed, imagining the future as the province of modified humanoids. Like sci-fi, which so often imagines alien cultures in outer space, cli-fi can figure as a referendum upon humanity itself.

Climate fiction is important not because it provides solutions, but because it allows readers to imagine and experience the complexity of climate change. To enter a fiction is to enter a commitment to shared imagination, to the social action of claiming a point of view. “Humans are hardwired for social community,” Kingsolver’s Ovid Byron declares.

The novel, all literature, certainly cli-fi, are social forms of knowing and sharing what we know. With the help of climate fiction, the conversation might become large enough to meet the challenge of climate change itself.

Stephanie LeMenager does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Boeing and SpaceX are building new 'space taxis' for NASA

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 17:16
Boeing's CST-100 selected as a passenger spacecraft. Boeing

After a four-year competition, NASA has announced it has selected Boeing and SpaceX to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

The contract - worth US$6.8 billion - was announced as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program on which the US space agency has spent about $US1.5 billion since 2010 investing in partner companies.

The contracts provide funding to get NASA certification of their rockets and capsules for safety and reliability. Boeing will be given $US4.2 billion and SpaceX $US2.6 billion.

Once certification is complete, SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 will each fly between two and six NASA missions to and from the ISS.

Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft departs from the International Space Station heading back to a landing site in Kazakhstan. NASA

This announcement shows a preference for US companies and a return to launches from US soil following the termination of the Space Shuttle program as NASA has been relying on Russia to take astronauts to the ISS.

As the NASA administrator Charles Bolden put it this week:

We are one step closer to launching our astronauts from US soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017.

The current contract with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, will expire in 2017. The recent rising tensions with Russia over its annexation of Crimea in Ukraine may have accelerated NASA’s efforts. It is believed Boeing and SpaceX are expected to have completed test flights by then.

Mixing the old and the new: Boeing and SpaceX

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (also known as SpaceX) was founded in 2002 by PayPal founder Elon Musk.

SpaceX has already shown its capacity by making successful flights to the ISS using its Dragon space capsule technology. In December 2010, SpaceX became the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft.

The Space Shuttle used to be the main transport to the International Space Station but its now been retied by NASA. NASA

Boeing, founded by William Boeing in 1916, has obviously extensive aerospace experience and will be contributing through its Crew Space Transportation CST-100 capsule.

Boeing’s CST-100, a seven-seater capsule, will sit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launching it into space. SpaceX’s Dragon, also a seven-seater, will launch atop SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rockets.

SpaceX’s Dragon V2 is designed to carry astronauts to Earth orbit and beyond.

The capsules are designed to splash down – parachute into an ocean – and be reused.

The move away from Russian technology has been further emphasised by Boeing’s deal with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin company to develop a new rocket engine – eliminating the reliance on Russian-made engines which power the Atlas 5 rocket.

A great example of NASA reaching out to industry

The announcement by NASA is of particular importance as it means that the “space runway” from the US to the ISS will rely on equipment owned and operated by private entities – which is a first.

As was noted by the author in a previous article, US president Barack Obama made it clear there would be a shift to a more commercial approach to space travel back after budget cuts to NASA and the retirement of its Space Shuttle program.

Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft will carry astronauts from American soil to the orbiting laboratory.

NASA’s chief Charlie Bolden is shifting its role towards exploration, testing and development of cutting-edge technology while outsourcing some activities - such as lower Earth orbit operations – to industry.

Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will also allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission like sending humans to Mars.

This will potentially result in human space transportation services being offered to external customers in addition to NASA.

For example, Boeing has partnered with Bigelow Aerospace which is a company building commercial space station using inflatable modules - or “expandable habitats”. Bigelow hopes to serve a large range customers from university researchers to space tourists.

In the mean time, NASA is currently working on very exciting projects such as the Space Launch System - which is a program looking at manned and unmanned space missions to the moon and back, also known as a trans-lunar trajectory, by late-2018; to a near-Earth asteroid around 2021; and eventually to Mars.

Hamza Bendemra received funding from Boeing in 2011 for engineering materials research.

Islamic State wants Australians to attack Muslims: terror expert

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 16:43
Police outside one of the Sydney homes raided earlier today, which has prompted warnings against an anti-Muslim backlash. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

It’s in the interests of Islamic State for Muslims in Australia to be attacked or for their mosques to be attacked, because doing so would help divide the Australian community. But we should be very clear: the only people who win if Australia is divided are the extremists.

The new allegations of a plot to kidnap and behead Australians as a way of supporting the Islamic State didn’t surprise me, because there was a similar plot in the UK about seven years ago. In that UK case, it was a plot to kidnap, torture and behead a British Muslim soldier, film it, and put it on the internet. Fortunately that never happened, because the men plotting that UK murder were caught.

I haven’t personally seen any signs of an anti-Muslim backlash in Australia in response to today’s raids and the allegations that have gone before the courts. But you could expect to see some kind of reaction if an attack took place in Australia. That’s certainly what happened in the UK after the so-called “7/7” London bombings.

I worked as a police officer with Scotland Yard for about 30 years, including as the head of international counter-terrorism intelligence at New Scotland Yard. Then I came to Australia in 2003 as the UK’s regional counter-terrorism liaison officer, and more recently joined Charles Sturt University. While I was at Scotland Yard, we had a unit that specifically dealt with Muslim community and worked on building that relationship.

But we found that the most effective form of good policing happened at an individual community level: having police officers on the ground, at local stations, involved with and knowing the Islamic community, and making sure that senior members of the community knew that should anything happen – such as an attack on a mosque – that the police would take that seriously.

It’s very important to remember, whether here in Australia or overseas – it’s only a tiny minority of the Muslim community that are ever involved in any kind of extreme action. The vast majority are decent, ordinary people, who shouldn’t be attacked, and who should feel as respected and protected as any other member of the community.

To non-Muslim Australians, I’d say that if they have a mosque or an Islamic centre in their area, they can help guard against potential backlash by keeping an eye out for their neighbours. If they see someone who looks like they might be doing the wrong thing [such as recent reports of anti-Muslim leaflets and pig bodies left at a Logan mosque, south of Brisbane], instead of ignoring it, they should get on the phone and tell the police.

And it’s really important for police to protect the Islamic community. If they don’t, there’s a risk that people will feel isolated and that’s not in Australia’s best interests.

As for Islamic State, if they or their sympathisers can arrange a situation where we see parts of the Australian community pitted against each other, then that’s exactly what they want. That’s the kind of situation that breeds more sympathy for their cause, so that disenchanted young people end up either going overseas or else taking actions in their own countries.

Nick O'Brien does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Weekend planet watch

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 16:38

As another, hopefully sunny, weekend rolls around it’s a great time to get out and spot some planets.

Look towards the glow of sunrise to find Jupiter with the moon. Museum Victoria/Stellarium

Around an hour before sunrise, you can catch Jupiter with the moon. The moon is a thin waning crescent. It is a few days shy of being a new moon, which occurs on September 24. This is when the moon joins the sun in the daytime sky.

On Saturday night, around an hour after sunset, look towards the west and you’ll find the planet Mercury. It sits just to left of the bright star Spica, easily the most prominent star within the constellation of Virgo.

Mercury pairs up with Spica after sunset on Saturday September 20. Museum Victoria/Stellarium

Spica consists of two stars, so close together they take only four days to orbit each other. Even research telescopes struggle to separate the two stars.

Spica sits very close to the ecliptic, which is the path that the sun appears to follow over the course of a year. The planets, along with the moon, are also found near the ecliptic and therefore it’s not unusual to see them pass by Spica.

Above Mercury is Saturn and shifting your gaze even higher in the west, towards the constellation of Scorpius, you’ll see the red planet Mars.

Mars is drifting towards its rival, the red supergiant star Antares. This Greek name means ‘like Mars’ and the two objects do appear quite similar when seen together in the night sky.

Looking towards the south-west Mars is found near the constellation of Scorpius. Museum Victoria/Stellarium

Tanya Hill does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Explainer: what Indigenous constitutional recognition means

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 16:31
Bundilla elder Aunty Barbara Raymond with schoolchildren in Darwin last year, supporting the cause of Indigenous constitutional recognition. AAP Image/Supplied by Richard Oppusunggu

Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australia has been on the national agenda for a long time, but is back in the headlines with the news that the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader hope to release draft proposals for a referendum question within weeks.

That comes on the back of building political momentum for constitutional reform, including the consultation and report of the expert panel convened by the previous government; the passage of the Act of Recognition; the work of a Joint Select Committee of Parliament; and a new Quarterly Essay on the topic by Noel Pearson, released this week.

So what does the Constitution say about race? How do we change it? And what are some of the proposals for what the Constitution might say in future, particularly when it comes to recognising Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander people as the First Australians?

What are the racial references in the Constitution now?

There are two sections of the constitution that mention race. The first, section 25, says that the states can ban people from voting based on their race. The second, section 51(26), gives Parliament power to pass laws that discriminate against people based on their race. They state:

Section 25. For the purposes of the last section, if by the law of any State all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of the race resident in that State shall not be counted.

This is an antiquated, redundant and racist section, which reflects past discrimination against Indigenous peoples’ rights to vote.

Section 51(26). The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to […] the people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.

This section, the so-called “races power”, has been interpreted by the High Court to allow the federal parliament to make laws that discriminate adversely on the basis of race. Parliament only ever used the races power regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

What is the Constitution? And why do we need to go to the polls to change it?

In Australia, the Constitution was a product of the views of the times.

It wasn’t created out of revolution, the need for equality, or even a strong need to be “free” of the British Empire, but rather the desire to bring colonies together to unite as a “Commonwealth”. Indigenous Australians were explicitly excluded from the constitutional processes and from its text.

Our Constitution functions as a powerful symbolic statement of Australian identity. But more than that, it is the ultimate legal document in our legal system. It grants and limits parliamentary powers, and functions as the supreme legal authority.

The Constitution was designed with a lock to prevent hasty reform, found in section 128 and explained in more detail here.

To change the Constitution, we need the approval of a majority of voters, across a majority of states. This is what makes our Constitution so hard to reform.

The 1967 referendum is considered one of the most successful amendments to the Constitution, as it was passed with very high popular support across Australia. Although it was misunderstood as “giving Aborigines the vote”, it did permit the federal government to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, which up to then was not constitutionally permitted. But that referendum still did not resolve the issues of recognition of Indigenous Australians and their legal and constitutional protection.

The idea that our Constitution still has sections that anticipate and allow racially discriminatory laws now seems like an anomaly for a modern liberal western democracy.

The reality of section 51(26) is particularly odd, as the High Court has confirmed that this grant of power can mean the federal parliament can pass beneficial laws, or adverse laws, that discriminate on the basis of race.

So our Constitution has some serious exclusions: both by not acknowledging the place of Indigenous Australians in our nation, and by authorising discriminatory laws. The concept of “race” as the basis for discriminatory treatment is long discredited, yet it is there still, an artefact of constitutional history.

A message from the late Dr Yunupingu re-released with permission from his family.

What might go into the Constitution if Australians voted Yes to Indigenous recognition?

The expert panel worked to develop recognition proposals and these underpin the Recognise campaign. In summary these are to:

• Remove Section 25, which recognises that the states can ban people from voting on the basis of their race;
• Delete section 51(26), which can be used to pass laws that discriminate (adversely) on the basis of race;
• Insert a new section 51A, to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to preserve the Australian government’s ability to pass laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
• Adopt a new section 116A, prohibiting governments from passing laws that discriminate on the basis of race; and
• Insert a new section 127A, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were this country’s first tongues, while confirming that English is Australia’s national language.

Some of these are considered non-controversial, while others have met more resistance.

The racial non-discrimination clause is probably the most difficult, because it is said to leave too much open to judges to interpret. The joint select committee assessed these proposals and canvassed some options for addressing some of the perceived resistance to the expert pPanel proposals.

Because bipartisan support is needed for a successful referendum, the political concerns about the wording of the proposal are now being debated.

While it might be that some find the proposed “non-discrimination” clause an invitation to unwanted judicial activism, it should be understood that without substantive protection, Indigenous Australians may conclude the referendum is too weak to warrant their support.

Noel Pearson recently asked: “If conservatives assert that a racial non-discrimination clause is not the answer then what is a better solution?”

He highlighted the valuable work of the Expert Panel and the continuing importance of protection from racial discrimination. So Pearson has suggested that the referendum guarantee “the Indigenous voice in Indigenous affairs”, which could include a number of reforms: some constitutional, some legislative and some procedural changes. There are explored more fully in Pearson’s new Quarterly Essay, published this week.

The proposed wording for the referendum has not been released yet, but the news that Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten are working together is a sign the momentum for reform is continuing. We might see draft proposals by the end of September.

Why should Australia change its Constitution?

Although the legal debate over Indigenous recognition might seem complicated, the importance of the underlying movement is simple justice.

Merely “symbolic” recognition is not really recognition of the proper history of Indigenous Australia, nor their contemporary concerns. It will not provide legal protection from bad, unjust or disproportionate laws.

Weak forms of recognition, or making no change at all, just replicates the same mistakes of legal and political exclusion we have been making since 1770. We should get the Constitution right this time.

Further reading
Welcome to my Country: seeing the true beauty of life in Bawaka
Culture, not colour, is the heart of Aboriginal identity

Melissa Castan receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

This Scot tips an agonising 'no' befitting a melancholy nationalism

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 16:13
Despite the urging 'Let's do this', it will be entirely in character for Scots to wake up tomorrow and mourn the fact that they didn't. EPA/Robert Perry

On Friday morning, I, an expatriate “British Scot”, could wake up to find that I have lost my identity. Because today Scottish voters might decide that a United Kingdom that includes Scotland ought no longer to exist.

It will all depend on the answer to a deceptively simple question: should Scotland become an independent country? As usual, everyone seems to have strong views.

The “Yes” campaign, led by the pugnacious Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon (yes!), has emphasised the enormous benefits of renewed Scottish nationhood. Scotland will have a seat at the United Nations, recognition as a sovereign by other states, an independent fiscal and defence policy, the right to send teams to the Olympics, and access to North Sea oil and the economic boon that this might provide.

The “No” campaign, with its slightly downbeat slogan, “Better Together”, has spent a fair bit of energy warning voters that independence could lead to disaster on many fronts. This includes exile from Europe, an exodus of the great Scottish banks to London, border controls between England and Scotland, the destruction of the United Kingdom and an Iceland-style financial crash.

Even Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott weighed in on the side of the “No” campaign by saying that an independent Scotland would delight “enemies of freedom and justice”.

These are all important matters but it is highly likely that the nationalists have overstated the benefits of independence just as the misery predicted by the “No” campaign is unlikely to occur.

So when people ask me how I would vote (if I had a vote), I answer in uncertain terms: “an agonising no”, as I recently told a radio interviewer.

Being anti-English is not enough

Being Scottish is a complicated business. I was brought up, after all, to be suspicious of the English. I remember being taken as an eight-year-old to the battlefield at Culloden near Inverness in the heart of the Highlands.

This is where the Jacobite rising of 1745 ended in catastrophe for the Highland clans. It is perhaps the key historical moment in the construction of a modern Scottish national identity.

Here a certain form of Scottish political nationalism based around the clan system was extinguished. At the same time, a later cultural nationalism arising out of exactly the same clan system was established and, indeed, became and remained closely linked in the public mind with Scottish nationhood.

Inside the battlefield museum, at the doorway, was a large oblong painting of an English redcoat bayoneting a dying Scottish clansman (fully kilted and helplessly wielding a claymore). I stopped to look at the painting and a primitive form of nationalism was born in me. I took up – as an early hobby – “despising the English”.

Scots may be reared on the legends of the doomed 1745-46 uprising against the English, but that does not make independence the logical conclusion. "Culloden" by David Morier

What did this mean? Well, if England played Uruguay in a soccer match I would bone up on Uruguayan culture and politics, and become a fully committed Uruguayan for a few weeks.

Later, though, I became a fully anglicised Scot with many English friends and cultural and institutional affiliations. Now I experience Scottish anti-Englishness (a growing and deplorable tendency on the outskirts of Scottish cultural and political life) as a hugely immature provincialism.

And so, if I was resident in Scotland I would vote, with some regret, against independence. This is hardly Gaza and Israel, but I find it remarkable that so few people in the mass media and on blogs seem anguished by the moral and political issues at stake. As usual, everyone seems so certain.

Beware the seductive but suspect yearnings

Here I make a plea for what I will call melancholy nationalism, a political and cultural nationalism that both revels in and rebels against national sentiment. It is a nationalism that understands itself as a yearning for something that has never existed, a nationalism that allows itself to suspend that knowingness every so often in order to be moved by quixotic tribal gestures, a nationalism that feels the threat from global sameness, yet escapes regularly into cosmopolitan plural identity.

To be Scottish, then, is to feel at once a powerful attraction exerted by the symbols of crude Scottish nationalism, a nostalgia for a Scottish commitment to strongly redistributive democracy and proletarian protest, and a belief in the distinctiveness and distinctive contribution of Scottish cultural and intellectual elites in the world. But it is also to harbour serious doubts about each of these.

What will happen? I think the “No” vote will be stronger. The Scots are not averse to celebrating their victories but it is the defeats that matter.

This is true of Scottish contemporary identity: bound up, as it is, with the generally miserable, occasionally heroic performance, of the Scottish football team at the World Cup, for example.

Indeed, there is a self-mythologising streak of defeatism or defeat-obsession that might well result in an aftermath to the referendum today in which the Scots wake up to discover that they have voted against independence, and collectively mourn the fact.

Gerry Simpson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Capital-C culture: The Perfect American at the Brisbane Festival

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 16:12
Philip Glass's reimagination of the Disney myth is a timely consideration of cultural labour. Brisbane Festival

The Brisbane Festival’s production of Philip Glass’s opera The Perfect American is only the third production of the 2012 work ever to be staged. That’s quite a coup for the Brisbane Festival and Opera Queensland.

The Perfect American was commissioned by Madrid’s Teatro Real and London’s English National Opera to mark the American composer’s 75th birthday. Glass’s telling of the Disney myth focuses on the final stages of Walt Disney’s life and career – a high art critique of a popular culture icon.

The festival’s pre-performance introduction set the tone; there was reference to da Vinci and “the Masters” – a move that locates Glass in a genealogy of high-culture European mastery. Audio clips of Glass’s previous work triggered spontaneous conducting in the guest speaker. Culture with a capital C, Art with a capital A.

Glass is a prolific composer, known more widely for his cinematic scores than his experimental music. There are several musical motifs within the opera’s score that are recurrent in Glass’s often sparse work. This score is more lush and almost romantic than most of his work, often mirroring aspects of the heavily orchestrated scores of Disney movies.

Ultimately, it is Dan Potra’s set design that steals the show. The emblematic elemental line sketches of the incremental creative process of animation are projected onto multiple mobile screens operated by visible rigs and pulleys, keeping the stage in motion throughout.

A circular platform at the centre of the stage, which most frequently houses Disney’s hospital bed, is turned throughout the performance mostly to signal a shift in scene.

Similarly, Leo Warner’s video design provides depth and texture to the at times plodding libretto. Animated line drawings map out the terrain of Disney’s magical kingdom – a mythical, middle America epitomised by Disney’s hometown of Marceline. Main St, USA is conflated with innocence, authenticity and hardworking values, obscuring the ugly politics that underscore the realities of the Disney empire.

The Disney genius

The concept of genius is deployed within the libretto through Disney’s own narcissistic proclamations and in the discourse surrounding the production itself.

Disney’s narcissism, megalomania and obsession with his legacy are repeatedly emphasised. The cult of self is easily mapped onto Andy Warhol, whose somewhat incongruent appearance in the storyline serves as a metaphor for both the unattributed creative labour at the centre of Disney’s (and Warhol’s) work and the unbridled celebration of the myths of American meritocracy and cultural colonisation.

Seemingly, Warhol’s superficiality is employed as a foil to Disney’s own embrace of beautiful lies. Warhol’s statement “I never criticise America and I never show ugliness in my work”, and his comment to Disney that “we are one and the same” makes sure that we understand that. Even so, Warhol’s ridiculously camp caricature is much too asinine to add anything to the story.

Just as Warhol sees himself in Disney, Disney sees himself in Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln and Disney’s shared meagre rural beginnings are the stuff of American dreams. But their ideas diverge through their understanding of equality and opportunity.

One of the more memorable moments showcasing Disney’s bigotry is in his exchange with a malfunctioning, robotic Lincoln. Disney equates civil rights with communism and the fight for equality as a perversion of the founding fathers' hopes for the country.

Robot Lincoln correlates with the process line of Disney animators employed to realise Disney’s creative vision. Coalesced by their harried postures and plaid outfits, at various times the workers take on black sleeves and white gloves (Mickey Mouse) and rabbit heads (Bugs Bunny) to denote dream sequences. But these aren’t the stuff of Disney’s dreams. These rabbits are more Donnie Darko than Bugs.

The aspiration central to the myth of the American Dream is realised in Disney’s iconic status as dream maker.

Disney imagined Disneyland as a magical kingdom with him as the king but like every fantasy, underneath the magic is a web of myths and manipulations. Disney, or Walt as he prefers to be called, doesn’t do the drawing, he is the “storyteller” – “a child…[who] looks at the world in wonder”.

The stories he tells are of a mythological America, one that is distinctly white and centred simultaneously on unending aspiration and small-town experiences and values. Disney’s mistreatment of his workers mirrors the political sentiment that there is always suffering to realise a grand vision. Snow White alone required the labour of 500 workers – most of whom signed away their rights of attribution.

Dantine, the exploited but resistant worker, takes on the appearance of a cartoon character as his frustration mounts. His rotund figure stuffed with sheaves of drawings that are slowly shed as he makes his final exit. In one of the more energetic scenes, Disney claims that Dantine’s “unpatriotic idiotic left wing remarks insult everything Disney stands for” to which the worker replies, “You were never an artist. All you were was a moderately successful CEO”.

The focus on creative labour and intellectual property throughout this work is timely. The musical motif that starts of sounding like trains slowly shifts to sound like the old ticker machines of the pre-digital stock market. This underscores the entrepreneurial fervour of Disney, particularly as his endeavour to colonise the world with his brand and his values is central theme of the production.

Trains are a recurrent motif in the opera. Trains symbolise progress and mobility and were central to the expansion of America’s new world. For Disney, trains inspired his vision of an amusement park. In one scene, the process line of Disney animators becomes a train across the front of the stage.

Behind all the dreams and wonder, the workers were the engine that drove the Disney machine. Without any irony, The Perfect American debunks Disney’s mythology – and simultaneously reinforces that of Philip Glass.

Kiley Gaffney has received funding from Arts Queensland and that Australia Council for the Arts.

How self-destructing cells may hold key to cancer cure

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 15:28
Purple breast cancer cells self-destruct. Khuloud T. Al-Jamal & Izzat Suffian

In the time that it will take you to read this article, millions of your body’s cells will have died via a self-destruct mechanism known as programmed cell death. This process is part of your body’s normal healthy function and is used to eliminate cells that are no longer needed or which have been damaged in such a way that their continued existence might be a threat.

During our development from single fertilised cells to embryos and beyond, programmed cell death plays an essential role in sculpting anatomical structures.

Footweb. Pschemp, CC BY-NC-SA It helps to form all parts of our bodies from our fingers and toes (dying cells take away the webbing between digits as we develop) to the complex network of connections between the neurons in our brains. For the developing embryo, the death of some cells is just as important as the survival of others.

When we’re fully grown, programmed cell death plays an important role in the continuous renewal of tissue such as bone marrow and the lining of the gut. It also acts as a surveillance mechanism – weeding out cells that have been compromised by viral infection or genetic mutation.

Apoptosis, one of the main mechanisms of programmed cell death, gets its name from the Greek word used to describe the shedding of leaves or petals. It was first identified in the mid-19th century but our modern understanding of it dates from 1972 and the pioneering work of John Kerr, Andrew Wyllie and Alastair Currie, then working at the University of Aberdeen.

Neat disposal system

They showed that during this process the contents of a dead cell are neatly packaged up to be absorbed for recycling by specialist white blood cells. This very effective waste disposal system is important because any leaking-out of the cell’s contents could cause harm to the surrounding tissue by provoking inflammation.

We now know that the process of apoptosis is a complex chain of events which involves many different enzymes and proteins. It begins with a signal either that there is something wrong with the cell or that it has become redundant. Sometimes the signal to die is produced by the immune system, but it can arise from within the doomed cell itself.

The message that the cell must die then cascades down to activate enzymes, called caspases, that have been lying dormant within it. These “executioners” then start the process of dismantling the cell according to a genetically encoded programme, and the drama unfolds according to a pre-determined sequence.

Move it. Dan Brady, CC BY

However, just as it is important that unwanted or potentially harmful cells are disposed of, it is also essential that healthy cells are not eliminated unnecessarily. Cells therefore also produce survival signals that are able to disrupt the message to commit suicide, and it is the fine-tuned balance between signals for death and survival that ultimately determine a cell’s fate.

Disrupted equilibrium

In cancer, crucially, the delicate equilibrium between cell division and cell death becomes disrupted in favour of too much division and too little death. Disruption of apoptosis is common to all cancers as the uncontrolled proliferation of cells that is characteristic of the disease – for example causing tumours – would ordinarily be a trigger for initiating the apoptosis self-destruct programme.

Normally functioning apoptosis would therefore lead to the death of cancerous cells before they could do any harm. But instead cancer cells suppress apoptosis by either disrupting the signals that tell the cell to destroy itself or by increasing the signals that tell it to survive.

The suppression of apoptosis by cancer cells can make treatment difficult as by definition such cells are more difficult to kill. However, cancers depend on inactive apoptotic pathways for their survival and this is a vulnerability that can be exploited in the treatment of cancer. Reactivate these pathways and the cancer cells might die.

Hydra-like return. Andrew Jian, CC BY

Researchers have already developed cancer drugs that can do just this, either by suppressing survival signals or by restoring the function of death-inducing ones, with promising results.

This work is still in its early days and one major challenge to overcome is the sheer range of different ways that cancer cells find to disrupt apoptosis – use a drug to cut off one of these and the cancer cells may, hydra-like, survive by starting to use another.

Nevertheless, we have come a long way over the past four decades and as we refine our understanding of the complex circuitry of the apoptotic system, the more effective cancer treatments will be developed.

Sarah Allinson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

New device uses nano-magnets to cleanse bad blood when sepsis strikes

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 15:28
Clean up act. Denn, CC BY-SA

Sepsis claims the lives of 8m people worldwide each year. It is the leading cause of hospital deaths in the US, a major threat to soldiers wounded in battle and a killer of children, particularly in under-resourced areas around the world.

Sepsis occurs when bacteria, fungi or viruses multiply in a patient’s blood and trigger a chain reaction that causes inflammation, blood clotting, and organ damage. Traditional treatment requires doctors to race against the clock to pinpoint the specific type of pathogen causing the infection so that the right antibiotic therapy can be administered. But in many cases blood cultures never make a positive identification, so we often treat them blindly.

Patients generally receive broad-spectrum antibiotics along the way, but things often go downhill fast and can end in septic shock, where blood pressure drops to dangerous levels. This is a challenge made greater still by the growing population of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and viruses where we currently have no treatment at all.

But there is some hope. Here at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, we are hot on the trail of the sepsis problem. In collaboration with other Harvard colleagues and two hospitals, we’ve developed a dialysis-like therapeutic device that could radically transform the way doctors treat sepsis, which we announced in Nature Medicine.

Meet ‘the biospleen’

The “biospleen” is a device inspired by the human spleen, which filters pathogens and toxins from flowing blood without requiring doctors to identify the pathogen causing the problem – and it captures antibiotic-resistant bacteria as well. We found that it was able to remove more than 90% of bacteria from the blood of rats in a few hours. It also increased survival when these animals were injected with a lethal bacterial toxin.

Pathogen’s find it magnetic. Harvard's Wyss Institute

The biospleen works outside the body like a dialysis machine. It consists of two hollow channels that are connected to each other by a series of slits: one channel contains flowing blood and the other has a saline solution. Key to its success are tiny nanometer-sized magnetic beads that are coated with a genetically engineered version of a natural immune system protein called mannose binding lectin (MBL).

The magnetic beads are added to the blood after it flows from a patient’s vein and before it enters the device. After the beads bind to pathogens, they are pulled from the flowing blood, through the slits, and into the neighbouring saline channel by a magnet in the device, which cleans the blood before being returned to the patient.

Stuck on you. Harvard Wyss Institute

Best of all? The device simply and effectively cleans the blood without the need to first pinpoint the pathogen responsible for the infection because the MBL protein binds to more than 90 different causes of infection and sepsis, including bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites and toxins.

Getting ideas out of the lab

Very innovative and potentially groundbreaking ideas often get stuck in the mire of traditional academic laboratories because they cannot be validated to the degree required by financial investors, for example, by working through manufacturing and regulatory challenges.

At the Wyss Institute, we’ve teamed up in-house inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs to speed up the commercialisation of our technologies. They’ll work with the blood cleansing device to get it out of the laboratory as soon as possible to begin saving lives.

The major reason no-one ever explored this idea in the past is that most clinicians and researchers assume that because blood cultures are negative, there are no circulating pathogens. But the reality is that there is circulating dead pathogen debris and many toxins, which are primary triggers of the inflammatory cascade that leads to sepsis. The power of this device is that it binds to dead pathogens and toxins as well as live bugs.

The next step will be to test and validate the technology in large animal studies and from there into human clinical trials.

Donald Ingber is founding director of the Wyss Institute for BIologically Inspired Engineering, and a professor at Harvard's schools of medicine and engineering. The biospleen was developed in collaboration with the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Massachusetts General Hospital

Terribly effective Islamic State propaganda draws the west into another conflict

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 15:27
Just the excuse they need. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The horrific murder of British aid worker David Haines – and let’s call it murder rather than “execution” with its connotations of justice – is the latest instalment in what threatens to become a regular and dreadful occurrence.

But while Islamic State has succeed in many of its goals when producing these videos, it is also clearly drawing David Cameron and Barack Obama into further military operations in Iraq.

The video of Haines' death fits a now familiar narrative. Like James Foley and Steven Sotloff before him, he kneels in the sand next to his masked captor.

First Haines speaks to the camera and, in obviously scripted terms, denounces the UK prime minister, David Cameron, and his government as responsible for his fate. His captor then says: “This British man has to pay the price for your promise, Cameron, to arm the Peshmerga against the Islamic State … playing the role of the obedient lapdog, Cameron, will only drag you and your people into another bloody and unwinnable war.”

It is after this, reportedly, that the beheading begins, but the camera cuts away before any blood is spilt. What it does show is the lifeless, body of Haines with his severed head on his back.

The end of the video shows “Jihadi John” placing his hand on the next intended victim who is named  as British citizen Alan Henning. He states: "If you, Cameron, persist in fighting the Islamic State, then you, like your master Obama, will have the blood of your people on your hands."

This film, and its predecessors involving Foley and Sotloff, have been widely viewed online and the still images have been splashed over the front pages of newspapers around the world.

And while deciding whether to republish the content poses a dilemma for editors, there is no denying that there is public appetite for images of violent extremism. As psychiatry specialist Dean Burnett has argued, there are many reasons for this but the desire to derive excitement from vicarious situations is a powerful force and there are, he writes, “few things as bad as another human meeting their untimely end in deeply unpleasant ways”.

In this sense, it is undeniable that IS propaganda has been extremely effective. It draws attention to the group’s existence and causes and reinforces, for audiences, the traditional binary oppositions of civilisation versus savagery.

On at least one level, IS propaganda is highly sophisticated. The group has understood the power of social media as a tool for disseminating its message and as a result has won the attention of the world. But IS has also played straight into the hands of David Cameron and Barack Obama by releasing such violent and extreme content.

Military intervention in the Middle East has often followed a similar pattern. Western governments seek to demonise the enemy, communicate a moral obligation to act, highlight the widespread atrocities committed by the enemy and the threat they pose to national security and argue that intervention will benefit the people of the region.

The run-up to the gulf wars of 1990 and 2003, the removal of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 and the debates around intervention in Syria in 2013 all saw governments trying to convince the public that military action was predicated on the above reasons. IS meets all the criteria too and the justification is right there in the videos.

There is already increasing public support on both sides of the Atlantic for military action in the region. On September 10, the Wall Street Journal published a poll in which two-thirds of respondents said they believed it was in the nation’s interest to confront IS. Only 13% said action was not in the national interest.

In the UK a survey by Opinium Research yielded similar results – it found that 60% of people were in favour of taking action to deal with IS. The measures people were prepared to support ranged from a hostage rescue mission by the SAS to deploying soldiers on the ground inside both Iraq and Syria. Only 20% would not support military action of any kind.

Without wishing to credit IS with the complexity of propaganda it may not possess, maybe the point is to draw the US into a ground conflict. At the time of writing, the US had carried out 162 air attacks in Iraq against IS but, as peace studies professor Paul Rogers has said, there are likely to be more. We are at the start of a war, not an in-and-out operation.

So both sides are following well-trodden paths and familiar arguments are being revisited. What remains startling about IS though is the simplicity of the murders it commits. The modern signifiers of warfare are absent from the films they broadcast – and the act of killing is stripped bare. The starkness of the imagery is matched by the starkness and rigidity of the rhetoric. If its primary purpose is to instill fear, revulsion and then retaliation, then that objective has been achieved.  

John Jewell does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Why Lord Hill's role as EC finance commissioner is a poisoned chalice for Cameron

The Conversation - Thu, 18/09/2014 - 15:27
Dave and Jean-Claude struggle to see eye to eye. Olivier Hoslet/EPA

In announcing his team of commissioners, European Commission president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker appears to have taken to heart Machiavelli’s oft-repeated dictum: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

British peer, Jonathan Hill’s appointment as the commissioner in charge of financial services, was one of many key portfolios given to politicians from leading member states, the specific responsibilities of which are actually the cause of significant concern for those countries.

Despite his appointment being considered a coup for Cameron by many, the reality is that Hill must balance serving two masters and his new job may actually be a poisoned chalice for the UK government. As a UK-nominated commissioner, he will be expected to strive to protect the interests of the City of London and the leading global position of the UK financial services sector.

But, in fact, his role is to work towards improving the oversight, supervision and regulation of the EU banking sector, which continues to be shored-up following the 2008 financial crisis.

There are three pressing economic and political challenges that Hill is tasked with tackling: the banker bonus cap, regulation of the shadow banking sector and a proposed financial transactions tax. Many of these policies are well on their way to completion and so Hill – and Cameron – risk being tarnished by their association with the implementation of tighter regulation.

Bonus cap battle

The most high profile issue is that of the bankers’ bonus cap. Already approved by the European Parliament in April 2013 and due to be applied fully in January 2015, the City of London and UK government continue to raise their objections to it. The cap limits bankers’ bonuses to 100% of their salary or 200% by shareholder agreement. This has already been breached in the UK, including payments exceeding the cap to the chief executives of Lloyds and RBS, both of which were bailed out by the UK taxpayers in 2008 (who still own 81% of the latter).

The UK government has also filed a challenge to the bonus cap at the European Court of Justice, arguing that the cap is contrary to other European treaties. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has also spoken out against the cap. So Hill’s task is to tread a fine line, balancing the City of London’s interests with EU legislation and the will of the EU parliament. And, with a UK general election on the horizon in 2015, the Conservative-led government is unlikely to gain any political mileage from opposing the cap, unless the court in Strasbourg comes to the rescue.

Shadow banking

A second issue that Hill must deal with relates to European Commission’s proposals for greater regulation of the shadow banking sector, which includes hedge funds, private equity funds and securitisation vehicles. These proposals reflect widespread concern about the overly loose regulation and supervision of the sector – notably its lack of access to central bank support and deposit insurance.

The global financial crisis highlighted the sector’s inherent vulnerability, given the magnitude of the risk inherent in its operations and the role these financial groups played in transmitting financial instability and contagion. Global shadow banking assets are estimated at €51 trillion, equivalent to around half of the regulated banking sector, with around €23 trillion in the EU – a significant proportion of which is in the UK.

The proposed regulations aim to improve transparency so as to monitor risks, increase financial stability and limit contagion channels. They also aim to ensure access to liquidity by introducing capital requirements of 3%. In addition, the proposals will require EU banks to separate their risky trading activities from deposit-taking business, as is the case in the United States.

These measures remain at the proposal stage and can expect to generate further conflict between the “light touch” regulation and supervision advocated by the City of London and the more interventionist approach generally favoured by the European Commission and European Parliament. Implementing this legislation will again require Lord Hill to seek a regulatory and supervisory balance, albeit with greater policy room to manoeuvre than on bankers’ bonuses.

Financial Transaction Tax

Finally, there is the thorny issue of the Financial Transaction Tax, originally due to be introduced in January 2014 but postponed until 2016 because of legal challenges, notably from the UK. This tax is effectively a “Tobin Tax”, imposing a transaction tax on short-term speculative deals (0.1% on bonds and equities and 0.01% on derivatives).

While several member states already impose similar taxes, UK opposition (among others) means that this tax will not gain the unanimous support required for EU-wide legislation. Instead, it has been proposed for the eurozone. The UK position on the Financial Transaction Tax, however, may soften, depending on the outcome of the 2015 general election.

These proposals for the EU financial services sector match Jean-Claude Juncker’s guidelines for his term as president of the EC, A New Start for Europe, which focus on improved regulation for growth.

Ultimately, Hill’s job is non-political, he is neither Cameron’s servant, nor the UK’s – but the EU’s. In reality he can do very little to protect the City of London and so may ironically find himself at the heart of implementing legislation to which his government at home is opposed.

Robert Read receives funding from: The African Caribbean & Pacific Group of States, The British Commonwealth, The CTA, The European Commission, The European Parliament, The Government of The Netherlands,The Inter-American Bank, T^he International Centre for Trade & Sustainable Development, The UK Government, The World Bank, The World Trade Organization.

Updated: 19 September 2014/ Responsible Officer:  College Dean / Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications